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Pho Bo – Beef Noodle Soup Hanoi Style

Introduction:

Where phở originally came from has proven inconclusive to researchers. From my little bit of digging around in Hanoi (Hà Nội) I found three theories each with their merits, but one in particular sounding the most likely. First off is a nice little theory that phở originated from the French word feu (fire) as in the dish pot-au-feu (a dish of soup, boiled meat and vegetables). The theory is plausible in that phở is pronounced the same as feu, and that it is a soup dish usually served with boiled meat. However, most of the ingredients in phở and pot-au-feu are different, and in the French version the meat is usually eaten separately from the broth whereas in the Vietnamese version the meat is in the broth, along with the noodles (phở).

Second off is the story that phở was invented during French rule by a talented cook in Nam Định City, which at the time was Vietnam’s largest colonial textile centre. The industry there was an amalgamation of French employers and Vietnamese labourers and the chef, whose name I couldn’t find, decided that to please both the colonialists and the locals he would base a soup on noodles (appealing to the Vietnamese) and beef (appealing to the French) and a few other available ingredients.

Finally, and the theory considered to be the most likely (according to the book PHỞ a Speciality of Hà Nội by Hữu Ngọc and Lady Borton) is that the birthplace of phở was in the village of Vân Cù in the Nam Định province. The story goes that impoverished villagers created phở and then peddled their dish in Hanoi, about 100 kilometres ways. The phở was a huge success amongst both the poor and wealthy residents of Hanoi and this success may explain why several of the best phở chefs in Hanoi originate from Vân Cù Village. Vân Cù villagers do not know who created phở, they only know that in about 1925 a villager named Van became the first person to move to Hanoi to open a phở stall.

Although a year has passed since my 5 week sojourn to the astoundingly brilliant Hanoi, the memories of phở bò in particular remain entrenched in my bank of culinary experiences. The phở that I have created and posted here is a culmination of all the soups I tasted in Hanoi and advice I was given from the Vietnamese friends I made over there. I have tried to stay true to the Hanoian style: a simple, clean and uncomplicated soup that has a deep rich meaty and lightly spiced flavour, with a subtle hint of sweetness. The secret to a great phở is the broth – the broth will make or break your soup. This version is based on phở bò chin (boiled beef) and phở bò tai (rare beef).

 

Serves: 8  |   Preparation:  30-40 minutes   |   Cooking: 4 hours + resting overnight

 

Ingredients:

For the broth:
2 kg Brisket |
2 kg Beef bones | Get your butcher to cut them in to pieces.
300g Pork rib bones | Adds a ‘sweetness’ to the broth – advised by my Vietnamese friends and connoisseurs of phở
6-7 litres Cold water | Enough to ensure the bones are covered.
1 tbsp. Sea salt |
5 large Asian or French shallots | Unpeeled.
1 bulb Garlic | Unpeeled.
100g Ginger | Unpeeled.
1 Brown onion | Unpeeled.

For the spice pouch:    
5 pods Black cardamom |
3 quills Cinnamon |
10 Cloves |
6 pods Star anise |
1 tbsp. Black peppercorns |

Other flavourings for the broth:    
150ml Fish sauce | Also have some extra if the broth needs seasoning at the end.
90g Yellow Rock Sugar | This sugar tastes both richer and subtler than refined, granulated sugar. It also gives the broth a beautiful lustre and glaze. White sugar can be used but reduce the amount to about 60g.

Additions to the final Soup:    
200g per person Phở (Noodles) | Buy fresh from an Asian grocers.
1 bunch Garlic chives | Finely chopped.
250g Rib eye fillet beef | Sliced thinly.
25g per person Bean sprouts |
6 Spring onions | Chopped.
2 Birds-eye chilli | Finely sliced.
1 to 2 Lemon or lime | Quartered.
1 bunch Asian basil | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
1 bunch Coriander | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
1 bunch Perilla leaves | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
1 bunch Vietnamese mint | Discard the roots, wash and split the bunch into small sprigs.
To season Fish sauce | Only of required.

 

 

How To:

Over a charcoal grill or a very hot griddle pan place the shallots, garlic bulb, ginger and brown onion and char-grill for about 20 minutes. We want the outer skin burnt and the inside soft; this really adds a depth of flavour of the broth. When done remove the burnt outer skins, discard and then chop up the rest in to smallish pieces.

Again over a charcoal grill or hot griddle pan toast the black cardamom pods, cinnamon quills, cloves and star anise pods for about a minute until really fragrant. Remove the spices from the heat and along with the peppercorns roughly grind them in a spice grinder or with a pestle and mortar. Make a pouch out of muslin cloth and add the spice mix. Tie up the pouch and set aside.

To an 11 litre (or similar) stock pot add the brisket, beef bones, pork rib bones, cold water and sea salt. Ensure that the water covers the bones completely. Bring the meat and bones to the boil and then reduce to a rolling simmer for about 15 minutes. During this time skim any impurities that rise to the surface (usually a brownish foamy scum). By removing these impurities you will end up with a clear broth. Now to the bones add the chopped char-grilled shallots, onion, garlic and ginger, spice pouch, yellow rock sugar and fish sauce and then bring back to the boil. Now turn down the heat to low, cover the pan and let it simmer for about 3 hours. The broth will reduce during this time, which is what we want.

After 3 hours turn off the heat and then allow the broth to cool for about an hour. Now carefully pick out the pieces of brisket. Leave them to cool overnight. Now, strain the broth through a fine sieve into a smaller stock pot (I use a 5 litre one) and then allow it to rest overnight in the fridge.

Once rested in the fridge the stock will have a layer of solid fat on the surface. Strain carefully through a fine sieve lined with a double layer of muslin and then return the broth to your smaller (5 litre) stock pot. You should see a lovely translucent brown stock. Discard the muslin cloth as it should now contain all the filtered fat.

Now to prepare the rest of the ingredients: take the Asian basil, coriander, perilla leaves and Vietnamese mint and put in to a bowl of iced water. This will ‘crisp’ the herbs. Drain them just before serving. Heat the broth to just below a simmer and season with fish sauce if required. I added about 1 teaspoon. Thinly slice the cold boiled brisket (used to make the broth) discarding any ‘lumps’ of fat.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil. In a large enough sieve place 200g of the noodles and blanch in the hot water for about 20 seconds. Loosen the noodles carefully during the blanching. Place the noodles in a serving bowl and repeat the process for the other serves.

Each serving bowl should now contain noodles. To each bowl add a good sprinkle of the finely chopped garlic chives, the bean sprouts, a few chopped spring onion pieces, a handful of sliced brisket and a few slices of the raw rib eye fillet. Now pour 3-4 ladles of hot broth into each bowl so that it looks like a soup. Serve immediately.

Prepare as a side a bowl containing the herbs and a dish containing the lemon/ lime quarters and sliced chilli. People can then add as much herb/ chilli/ lemon or lime to their soup. Remember a phở connoisseur first lightly stirs the noodles, then drinks a mouthful of the sweet broth.

Vietnam – The Conclude

Physically I am back in Melbourne. The rest of me is still twisting and turning, smelling and eating, listening and chatting, and sipping Vietnamese ca phe at my local.

 

Hanoi Old Quarters at Night

Hanoi Old Quarters at Night

 

Hanoi has been an eye opening time that has left me both saddened and inspired. I have loved the simplicity and camaraderie of the Hanoians, and therefore have returned to the ‘routine’ of life, saddened. However, having removed myself from routine and having had the honour and pleasure to ‘live’ in such an exhilarating environment for a month has left me feeling inspired and with a fire in my belly to achieve anything I desire, especially with reference to cooking.

I hold true to what I said in a previous post and that is you can only truly experience cooking Vietnamese when you have cooked in Vietnam. I will also say that you have only truly eaten Vietnamese when you have eaten it in Vietnam.

 

Hanoi Food at Com Que, The Old Quarter

Hanoi Food at Com Que, The Old Quarter

 

In Melbourne there is an area called Little Vietnam, or Little Saigon. Before I went to Hanoi I would rave about the food here – real Vietnamese food. Recently there was a festival there celebrating the lunar New Year; it was just after we had arrived back in Melbourne. Feeling ‘home’ sick for Hanoi we were in a frenzy to get down there and drown ourselves in pho. But this time it was different. Don’t get me wrong it was still good, but it just wasn’t a patch on those grubby little street stalls in the Old Quarters. It was almost as if it had been commercialised to suit a broader palate.

I am a great lover of the Melbourne food scene, and the ingredients you can get here are fantastic, so this is no blight on Melbourne, or indeed Little Saigon. It’s just that I have experienced how simple food can be simply perfect if it is made perfectly. This is something I hope that I will carry forward in my culinary adventure, wherever it takes me.

Over the next few weeks I will be testing out recipes gleaned from various sources in Hanoi, and will be putting them on this blog.

When I travelled in India, which was one of the most inspirational periods of my life, there was a saying that went:

Journeys are forever. People come and go,

And the eternal fascination of India endures.

And when it’s difficult to say goodbye,

India has a popular saying that translates to mean

“I go, so I may return”.

…and this is my ‘conclude’ dedicated to Vietnam.

 

Beautiful Sapa

Beautiful Sapa

Vietnam – The best Pho in Hanoi is…

…a very difficult one to call. Before I give the final answer, a subjective one of course, it’s important to define what actually makes a good pho (in case you haven’t read my other Vietnam posts, pho is the general name for the thick rice noodles served in broth). Here is my take on it:

1)      For me the whole dish hinges on the broth. And I found that a Hanoi pho has a distinct broth which is sweet (not by sugar) and homely, and does not contain additives like chilli sauce, vinegar or garlic. I hear that connoisseurs of pho like to lightly stir their noodles in the broth and then take a mouthful of the sweet broth. Straight away you know if it is good or not.

2)      The next thing is the quality of the meat. We came across two main types of pho: pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken).

Pho Bo: here brisket is usually used, which is from the front underside of the cow. I came across three variants of pho bo. The first was pho bo chin, which uses a beef that has been boiled, hung up to dry and is then sliced. The second was pho bo tai, where the fat and tendons are removed from the beef. The beef is cut into small pieces, put in a ladle and the ladle is half submerged in the vat of broth. The meat is pulled out when semi-cooked.  The third variant I saw was pho tai nam. This one is similar to pho bo tai except that cooked meat is served with raw meat. In all instances the beef is placed on the noodles in a serving dish and then broth is poured over.

 

Pho Bo Sign in Hanoi

Pho Bo Sign in Hanoi

 

Pho Ga: I only saw one variant of pho ga. In Hanoi only the chicken breast is served in this noodle soup, so to get a good mark, mentally in my head anyway, the breast had to be nice and tender and full of flavour.

 

Pho Ga - Chicken Noodle Soup

Pho Ga – Chicken Noodle Soup

 

3)      The noodles are another important part. They should be nice and slippery with no ‘sliminess’. To be honest all the noodles I tried in Hanoi were near damn perfect.

4)      Additions. This is really about what was served with the pho. Usually the pho is served with spring onions and garlic chives. Also, an additional bowl would be served containing anything from the following; perilla leaves, Asian mint, coriander, Vietnamese mint, crisp lettuce, miniature limes and fiery chilli. I can’t remember any pho being served with bean shoots although when I eat pho in Little Vietnam in Melbourne there are always bean shoots. I actually think the pho is better without them.

I worked out that we have eaten pho at nearly every type of establishment, and have eaten it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Apart from one which was average (it was an international chain of Pho restaurants), all of them have been unique and ‘insanely great’ (stole that one from Mr Jobs, RIP).

We had the honour of eating pho ga on Christmas night with the owners of the apartment and all the other tenants. This was a wonderful experience with in an international group of people socialising, laughing and telling stories whilst lapping up beautiful noodle soup, spring rolls, sticky rice and punchy and herbaceous salads.

We had memorable pho bo and pho ga on the edge of the mountains in Sapa – it was cold there, so the hot noodle broth for breakfast instilled a warmth that would carry you through to lunch.

We have eaten pho at little places we have discovered in Hanoi; usually tiny holes in a wall kitted out with miniature plastic stools and tables, and serving the most incredible pho.

But the winner of the best pho, and the place that completes number 10 in the top ten of must eat street food experiences, goes to a place that is renowned for its pho in Hanoi, and the one that I saved till last to eat in. Located in the middle of the Old Quarters this pho joint is mentioned in a couple of publications that we have in Vietnam with us; Luke Nguyen’s book ‘Songs of Sapa’ and Lonely Planet Vietnam.

I awoke at 6.30 in the morning and took the 25 minute walk from our apartment to Pho Gia Truyen, the name of the pho stall. I was greeted by a queue of locals that were being served by a Vietnamese lady with an intimidating looking meat knife. She was delicately cutting slices from the big piece of brisket.

 

Number 10 -  Pho Bo (Pho Gia Truyen)

Number 10 – Pho Bo (Pho Gia Truyen)

 

As my turn arrived to be served she barely lifted her head, but I could see her eyeballs stretching to look at me. She gave me the look of ‘are you going to order or what?’

Nervously, I said “pho bo, cam on”. She raised her head, gave a little smile and pointed to the menu. There were three things all of which I had never heard of so I plumped for pho tai nam (see above). I sat down at a small table where my knees covered my ears. Everyone let out a big gesticulation of laughter and they pointed to a bigger table. Smiling, I moved and was then served the most sweet, beefy and heart-warming broth that I had eaten in Hanoi.

 

Pho Tai Nam Beef Noodle Soup

Pho Tai Nam Beef Noodle Soup

 

The meat was incredibly tender, the noodles were unctuous and the herbs, although few, harmonised with the whole dish. My best pho in Hanoi.

Vietnam – A Week In

Like twisting ivy this place is growing around me and encapsulating my soul. It is a place of extremities from its peaceful nature and subtle flavours to it energetic and entropic stream of motorbikes and its people’s intensity for life. Perambulating around this wonderful city brings new things to take in; new sights, smells, tastes, sounds and sensations. And although this is starting to sound like Lonely Planet, I cannot talk about the excitement that the existence of food brings here without providing a little insight in to the surroundings around that food.

 

The Old Gate in Hanoi

The Old Gate in Hanoi

 

Hanoi has a number of areas, with the heart of the city being centred around Lake Hoan Kiem, a beautiful jade coloured lake (when the sun is out) that is the home to a sacred turtle, one that some locals believe to be hundreds of years old. To the north of the lake is the Old Quarters, the hub of trade in Hanoi, and home to the most incredible street food. As I walk around the Old Quarters it is apparent that every street is home to a particular trade, and the street names indicate such. For example there is a street for silk, one for hardware, sunglasses, shoes, hair, mats, coffee, fruit, noodles, clothing, bags – the list goes on. And on every one of these streets someone is eating or cooking.

One of the discoveries I made earlier in the week was a café with a stunning view over the lake. To enter this café you first have to walk through a purveyors of silk, and then through an antique courtyard before climbing three sets of winding and rickety steps. Once there I had a treat – Vietnamese coffee with egg-white. At first this does not induce a real desire to partake, but having taken the plunge to try this speciality I was taken by this wonderfully whipped sweet meringue like head on the strong and intense Vietnamese coffee.

Having been only mildly impressed with the first Pho I had eaten here in Hanoi, it was time to venture in to the real street food areas of the Old Quarters, where I stumbled upon a typically spit and sawdust eatery; plastic chairs, imbalanced laminate tables, greying ‘white’ tiles and a kitchen that looked as if it had just been excavated from the earth.

Having travelled around Asia before, I have a good feeling for whether a place is safe to eat or not, and although there was a little trepidation, I thought that it was good for us all to eat there. I had pho bo and was quite simply blown away – this was what I had longed for in Hanoi. The simplicity of the dish was married with a harmonious balance of flavour. There seemed to be cassia (seems more readily available here than cinnamon, and gives a more intense flavour), star anise, black pepper, garlic, ginger and onion coming through in the beef based broth. The salt came from fish sauce. The broth had brisket (beef cut from the breast or lower chest), rice noodles and spring onions and was served a side of bean shoots, perilla leaves, Vietnamese mint, sliced red birds-eye chilli, and miniature limes. It felt like eating something very homely that would then burst to life with explosions of herby and spicy fireworks on the palate. Apparently there is another place that serves the ‘best’ pho in Hanoi, but surely this one has to be up there. Hanoians eat pho from 7am and so our Pho sessions are getting earlier and earlier.

 

Hot Pickled Chilli in Hanoi

Hot Pickled Chilli in Hanoi

 

A couple of days ago we all ventured to HOM market, an old Hanoi market that as well as a selling a seemingly infinite range of fabrics from around the world is brimming with vegetables, fruit, delicacies, meat and live fish and seafood – my kind of heaven. And given this market is only a 3 minute walk from our Hanoi apartment it’s a great source of fresh ingredients for my cooking exploits. On the last trip there I couldn’t go past the vat of live black tiger prawns, which were just crying to be wok fried with garlic, fish sauce, chilli, bamboo, coriander and served with perilla leaves (a Vietnamese herb from the mint family) and lime; a dish inspired purely by the produce and the classic chilli-mint combination. I can tell you that I have never eaten prawns that fresh; literally 30 minutes from swimming around in the kitchen sink in the apartment they were being served, and the difference in texture and clarity of flavour was immense.

 

Lime and Chilli Served with Pho

Lime and Chilli Served with Pho

Vietnam – Pho, Whoa and Toe

This place, Hanoi, is incredible. The buildings and monuments hint imperiously at the Communist past, and to a lesser extent its current presence. The noise, vitality and volume of motorbikes and scooters exercises the senses. The style, bustle and colours of the Old Quarters whizz you back to a French colonial past melded with the true modern day essence of Vietnamese trading. And importantly the smell of spices, bread, coffee and soups at every street corner induce what seems to be a permanent state of hunger. I love this place, and we are only one day in.

As the first part of this post title suggests today was about finding Pho, the iconic Vietnamese noodle soup, which can be seen made and eaten wherever you look in Hanoi. Our first Pho Bo (Beef noodle soup) was good, but we have been assured that we are about to be shown the best Pho in Hanoi by the owner of our rented apartment. This I will be looking forward to. A highlight of today was seeing a Vietnamese lady in essence carry her Pho ‘shop’ in two large baskets, one dangling either side of a long pole resting on her shoulder, something akin to a large set of scales. These baskets must have been heavy because in total they contained a burner/ stove, a big pot of broth, a mound of fresh noodles, as well as bowls, spoons, chopsticks and serving accompaniments including lime, chillies, herbs, bean sprouts and pots of sauces. She rested her wares at the side of the road, and literally within 30 seconds had set up her ‘shop’ and was serving a queue of people their lunch. It was quite amazing to see.

Coffee also has its place here, and I am surprised to see the many coffee shops dotted about the city. Traditional Italian style coffee can be had, which I have to say was excellent where I had it. However, as I wanted to try something different later on in the day I had the Vietnamese version. Hot water is added to a thin metal filter/ container that has ground coffee in the base. The coffee, I think, has been roasted in some kind of buttery oil which really gives it a distinguished Vietnamese taste. The coffee slowly drips in to a cup containing sweetened condensed milk. Once fully ‘dripped’ the hot coffee is stirred and then poured into a tall glass full of ice. That was the Whoa of the day.

The toe is a bit of a sad story; sad in that it’s not much of a story, has nothing to do with food and was down to my own clumsiness. Basically, whilst having mastered the often feared crossing of the roads here in Hanoi I slipped on some mud in the gutter, and having the most sensible of footwear on, flip-flops, proceeded to trip up and remove some of the outer layers of my toe. This was much to the amusement of the locals, and much to the pain of myself. With the red stuff pouring out I found a pharmacy, and once I had woken up the attendants, all three who were sleeping behind the counter, I was supplied and pampered with cotton wool, iodine, antiseptic cream and plasters. How special one felt.

As night drew in, about 5pm this time of year, the final act for the day was to purchase some cooking tools; wok, knives, chopping board, bowls, utensils etc. and then some ingredients for my first ever cook in Asia. Having travelled through Asia in years previous and never having actually cooked in an Asian country before, I was really excited at the prospect of going back to the apartment and getting in to the kitchen. One thing that Hanoi is renowned for is its subtlety of flavours, so that the taste of the produce is the feature. Therefore food tends not to be overly spiced here. With this is mind the first dish I cooked was simplicity itself: black tiger prawns, bamboo shoots, fresh coriander and rice noodles flavoured with, my find of the day, ‘butter fish’ fish sauce and a touch of garlic chilli sauce, and washed down with a couple of cans of Bia Ha Noi, the local Hanoi beer.  Simplicity and Beauty all in one.